A human being, Bertolt Brecht once wrote, is the sum of his social circumstances. In mounting Brecht’s great 1943 drama The Good Person of Szechwan, Cor Theatre has managed, against all odds, to create a world in which social circumstances barely exist.
Of course, it’s a tricky thing to create Brecht’s Szechwan, as it bears no more resemblance to a region that might ever have existed in China than his city of Mahagonny bears to, well, anywhere on earth. It’s simply—or not so simply—the land where parables play out. And as parables go, The Good Person of Szechwan is a humdinger. Three despairing gods have been dispatched to earth, ordered to prove there still exist human beings worthy of divine protection (Brecht’s parable is, on one level, an ironic subversion of the Sodom and Gomorrah myth). When they appear to local water seller—and swindler—Wang, asking for nothing more than a place to spend the night, Wang can’t find a single home owner willing to display an ounce of hospitality. Ready to give up on humanity, the gods change their terms: if they can find just one good person on earth, they’ll be appeased.
It turns out that Shen Te, a prostitute, is the only one in town who’ll take the gods in for a night (in director Ernie Nolan’s rarely subtle production, Shen Te is smack in the middle of getting fucked by a client when Wang comes calling). After a night’s rest in Shen Te’s hovel, the gods are ready to retreat to the shadows, admonishing Shen Te to “above all, be good.” But how can she possibly manage that, she interjects, when everything in Szechwan is so expensive? At first the gods insist they can’t meddle in economics but then decide to punt, handing her a thousand silver dollars to pay for their night’s lodging. In contemporary parlance, they’re incentivizing goodness.
Shen Te uses the money to open a tobacco store, and almost immediately a swarm of neighbors and relations descend upon her, all eager to exploit her good fortune for their personal gain. Despite her natural eagerness to help all who come to her, she’s pushed to the financial brink, at which point her stern taskmaster cousin Shui Ta arrives. He kicks the freeloaders out and eventually puts them to work in his dreadful tobacco factory. Shui Ta is ultimately revealed to be Shen Te in disguise, which in turn reveals the plays central moral conundrum: to do good, a person must have means, but in order to maintain adequate means, a person can’t stay good.
In true parable fashion, the social circumstances in Szechwan are simple and straightforward: poverty abounds and goods are in short supply, making everything costly and poverty worse (not coincidentally, Brecht wrote the play in exile from Germany as World War II raged). Nolan hopes to duplicate these circumstances on what appears to be a particularly dicey New York City block, where petty thieves, officious landlords, small business owners, streetwalkers, cross-dressers, and hustlers collide. The effort to contemporize Brecht’s world is thorough, from the street fashions the characters wear to the cell phone Shui Ta wields. All of the numerous songs in the play (some interpolated from other of Brecht’s works) are redone as hip-hop.
At first blush Nolan’s updating seems particularly apt, as the increasing wealth disparity in America leaves people on the lower end of the economic spectrum little option but to feed off one another. But the production rarely creates a convincing sense of deprivation. The stage world never seems to be a place where shortage is the order of the day, despite many characters’ frequent protestations about the hard times in which they’re living. Instead, the cast focus almost exclusively on creating broad—and often overly broad—caricatures which seem, due to divergent acting styles, to be plucked from disparate universes. This is less a social world than a collection of comic types. It may make the crushingly cynical play go down easier, but it provides a distinctly fuzzy lens through which to view its ethical dilemmas.
Further, it makes many moments ring false. In a contemporary urban setting, how can anyone ask with a straight face, Do you know what a pilot is? Or long for an exorbitant salary of $250 a month? Or care about the difference between dollars and silver dollars? Brecht’s parable may be timeless, but its specifics are rooted in his time (specifics which Tony Kushner’s fluid, faithful translation preserves).
As Shen Te/Shui Ta, the always engaging Will Von Vogt makes a brave effort. But he’s acting in a void that gives little context to his struggles. It’s tough to watch a performance so admirable mean so little. v